FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It has been this way for a while now for Jay Payton. He reports to spring training and has to battle a new acquisition or some young hot shot for a starting job or for at-bats.
The Orioles outfielder would have been perfectly fine with that this spring. He's 35 years old, and he's coming off a season where he hit just .256 and had seven homers and 58 RBIs in 434 at-bats. But he says he still felt he deserved an opportunity to compete for a starting spot.
"Last year, I felt like when I came in, I knew if I had a good spring, that I might be able to win a job," Payton said. "This spring, all indications were that it wouldn't have mattered if I hit .700. It's been a little disheartening. I felt like I was pushed to the fourth outfielder's spot without having a chance to compete against two guys that have relatively little experience, even though they are good players and have a decent ceiling."
The two players Payton is referring to are Adam Jones, a 22-year-old center fielder, and Luke Scott, a 29-year-old left fielder. The Orioles acquired both in trades this offseason and immediately penciled them in the starting lineup, forcing Payton into a reserve role.
Payton has become friends with Scott and Jones and made it known to manager Dave Trembley that he'll be ready to help the team when he's called upon. "Once the bell rings on Opening Day, I'll be ready," he said. "Every at-bat I get, I have to treat like it's my last at-bat."
He has gotten high marks from Trembley about his attitude and focus this spring, and he has also played hard and well, hitting .308 despite being slowed by bronchitis and the flu.
However, less than a week before Opening Day, the thought of being a fourth outfielder on a team that is in full rebuilding mode remains unattractive to Payton, who has one year and $5 million left on the two-year pact he signed with the Orioles before last season.
"I'm making more money than I've ever made in my career," Payton said. "I'm playing on a team that is projected not to do well even though I feel like we're going to shock some people, so for me to come in here and be pushed out of the picture, that's a little disheartening, but that's the game. Teams decide to take directions, and you kind of have to deal with it. Hopefully, if I'm not going to play a lot here, they'll do right by me and look for me to go somewhere else."
Payton said he hasn't demanded a trade because he first wants to see how things play out during the season. He knows he's one injury or prolonged slump from being an everyday player again.
He also knows his name has been mentioned in plenty of trade talks, and it remains possible that president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail will trade him before Opening Day. The Orioles had some talks with the Chicago Cubs about Payton in the Brian Roberts talks, but the Cubs signed Reed Johnson yesterday, so they no longer have a need for a right-handed-hitting outfielder.
"Andy hasn't said anything to me all spring, outside of hello and goodbye," Payton said. "But that's fine. Who knows, he may be trying to get something done. I'll wait to see if things take off and see what's happening and if I feel it's necessary, I'll go talk to Andy and see what's going on.
"I know things happen and I feel like there could be an opportunity here for me to get at-bats. It's just a matter of what direction they really want to take if something happens to one of the other outfielders. Do they let me have my at-bats or do they still go in another direction and bring in another guy and let him have those at-bats? If that's the case, this is definitely not the place for me."
The situation isn't exactly foreign territory for Payton. He was acquired in a trade by the Boston Red Sox before the 2005 season. He wanted no part of the Red Sox, knowing their outfield was set with Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon. He privately told Boston general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona that he wanted a trade. He didn't get his wish until after a much-publicized dugout confrontation with Francona and Boston bench coach Brad Mills forced the Red Sox's hand.
Payton knows the incident gave him a reputation as a malcontent. He has told Trembley he will be ready when opportunities come his way. Trembley met with Payton and Jay Gibbons recently and told them they will start the season on the bench but get their opportunities.
"He's been tremendous this spring," Trembley said of Payton. "Scott and Jones are not going to play every day. I can't do that every day and run Payton or Gibbons out there every eight days and expect them to produce. Payton has had a very good spring. He'll find his way in there."